Thursday, September 15, 2011

Notes From My Knapsack 9-29-11

Jeff Gill


Why is there a Ron Paul?



Politically, I don't usually want to get into politics.


It's too easy to go for the "there's not a dime's worth of difference between the two major party candidates" attitude, yet there's also a perspective which I think we all do well to consider: that our vote for President of the United States may not really be as important as our votes for village council, township trustee, or school board members.


So while I nod at "all politics is local" (whatever is grammatically actually correct), and shrug at "the most important national election ever," I am interested in candidates and narratives.


Looking back, there's always a story arc to follow, one that often seems obvious as well as clich├ęd in retrospect, but they are wonderfully resistant to predictability looking forwards.


Richard Nixon, the outsider who fought his way into the inner circles of power, but never quite felt like he was truly included, whose insecurities led him to fatal errors. Gerald Ford, the amiable Midwesterner who was a bit out of his depth but married well and made the most of the opportunities that he was given. Jimmy Carter, the rural smart boy who grew up into a know-it-all who actually did know nuclear engineering, but couldn't quite bring that knowledge to bear on face-to-face, human relationships and was tricked by less intelligent, but much cleverer operators in the big city.


Reagan, the actor who grew into his roles and inhabited them so fully he sometimes forgot which were parts, and which were personal experience, but who turned out to have not only learned his lines but did the background research on his own.


The Bushes, father and son, living out a Steinbeckian "East of Eden" scenario with a whiff of the Prodigal, perhaps giving us an uneasy look at how things went after the welcome home party from the skeptical older brother's view.


Bill Clinton, poor boy who strives and achieves and makes good, but brought low by hubris, never quite achieving his full potential. Then there's Hillary – the one national figure who seems to be writing her own story, chapter by chapter, without worrying about stock figures or stereotypes. Love her or loathe her, she's an original.


And then there's Ron Paul. No, I don't think he's going to be president. I doubt if he'd make it long as a Rotary Club president. For his stretch of Texas outback, he's the kind of citizen legislator that we all know, deep down, is what Madison and Hamilton had in mind, with all their messy quirks and contentiousness, ideally cancelling each other out in extremes through the true melting pot designed into the American experiment, Congress itself.


For some, immersed in the politics of the day, Rep. Paul sounds like some old crank utterly out of touch with reality and his district, and what they need him to do in Washington, let alone out on the stump running quixotically for President. But what he sounds like, to me, is Davy Crockett.


Col. David Crockett was a three term Representative from Tennessee, although his reputation is more associated with Texas in the public mind. As Rep. Crockett, he is said to have given a speech on the floor of the House, known to history as “Not Yours To Give,” telling the story of his encounter with a constituent named Horatio Bunce. You can easily find a copy online searching with Crockett and Bunce and the speech’s title. Did events happen exactly as this account puts it? Probably not, but it’s the continuing popularity of the speech that intrigues me.


And when you read that speech, you’ll think you’re hearing Ron Paul. And when you search for it, and see how many websites proudly carry a copy of it, you might see why this story is not just history.


Who will win in 2012? I've no track record to speak of national elections; my own history is one of support and campaigning for folks like Dick Lugar and John Anderson. You'll recall their administrations fondly, I'm sure.


But even as I count out Ron Paul as a credible national candidate, I think the fact that he has the profile he does says something about the story being written politically right now, something about how people are starting to feel about "what Washington can do for you." Sure, air traffic control, national defense, maybe even food & drug regulation (sorry, Ron, you're just wrong there), but federal guidelines that ban bake sales at Granville Middle School? How about "Not Yours To Take."


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him your political narrative at, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Faith Works 10-1

Faith Works 10-1-11

Jeff Gill


An Open Letter to Church Leaders



Dear church leaders of all sorts, lay and ordained:


I'm writing this to respectfully ask, or suggest, or at least give a heads-up to you, for the consideration of the following list of what are not really possibilities, but almost certain probabilities.


Can you look at your congregation as it is today, and then envision what it means you need to be doing now (not later, not soon, but now) to deal with the following…


Church newsletters in the not-to-distant future will not be viable forms of communication for you. Postal rates will continue to skyrocket, especially for the kind of mailing that we call a "church newsletter." How will you replace that?


People will simply not have money or checkbooks with them when they come to church, especially if they're under the age of 60. How does the offering time in worship work, and what does it do to special appeals, let alone the general fund, when that already developing trend becomes the new normal?


Most people who read the Bible will do so on their smart phones, tablets, or e-readers. How does this impact worship and Sunday school or Bible study time? Maybe not much, or maybe it's an opportunity to create new relationships between parishoners and the Bible itself, but it's a change that, again, is already happening.


(And then what do you present to high school graduates or 6th graders? Still a "symbolic" hard-copy Bible?)


Your congregation, even above age 65, is starting to abandon landlines. Cell phones are being displaced by smart phones (see Bible note above) which are used more for non-phone call related activities & communication than they are for saying "Hello, did I wake you up?" How do your phone trees and directories work when most congregational communication is happening through Facebook group page postings, or Twitter? (Oh, you didn't know that e-mail, yes, e-mail, is being seen as an "old person" way to communicate?)


What happens to staffing if new federal law says any employee of 12 hours or more a week has to have health insurance? This is a bit more of a stretch, because no one can figure out where federal mandates and state worker comp guidelines are going to go.


Likewise, what happens to your church kitchen if state and county health codes become even tighter on "public feeding" guidelines? Yes, that might well include potluck dinners.


More generally, how does your budget look if a) the parsonage/housing allowance disappears, b) charitable deductions vanish from the tax codes, and c) your parish has to start paying property taxes? I'm not recommending or happy about that (non-profits of any sort shouldn't pay property taxes in my opinion, and I can defend that, but it's a whole column itself), but trends are heading that way. If you doubt me, ask your property committee about "watershed assessments" and look at what we've now integrated into the annual paperwork flow. It's all in place but the final addition of some level of property tax billing on that line, now empty.


None of this is meant as an apocalyptic or crisis-mongering set of questions. Each likely impact will come with nuances difficult to anticipate, but pretty much all of the areas I've noted are changes already percolating into view.


Pretending they aren't happening, or bemoaning their occurrence, is not going to change the fact that things just won't be the same, and that's the one thing that's always been true.


Has your faith community stopped to reflect on these developments, and put together specific strategies for dealing with them? I could go on, but that's enough to chew on through the end of 2011.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he's seen a few changes in church life – tell him about yours at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

Faith Works 9-24

Faith Works 9-24-11

Jeff Gill


My Strong Deliverer



One of these days
We all will stand in judgment for
Every single word
That we have spoken
Mac Powell of the contemporary Christian group "Third Day" has become one of my favorite theologians. When he writes and sings lyrics, there are layers below the surface that reward continued prayerful reflection.
"Revelation" is another song whose lyrics just jolted me up out of my seat the first time I heard it, not that it's saying anything preachers haven't been saying for generations.
In the same way, "Trust in Jesus" has nothing really new in it. Call it "the old, old story," but the side of the story that has a cutting edge on it.

One of these days we all will stand before the Lord
Give a reason for everything we've done…
The idea of having to give a reason for everything I've done, even for all I did yesterday, is not appealing. OK, it's terrifying. If this makes no sense to you, feel free to move on to the car ads (but why do you want a new car?).
And no less bracing is the image of having to stand before one wiser and more knowledgeable than me and hear some of the stupid stuff I've thought and said, let alone try to remain upright before an ultimately wise, infinitely powerful One (and to those who don't think anything other than physical decay happens after death: why are you still reading, anyhow? Is it what W.C. Fields said when caught reading the Bible – "I'm looking for loopholes!").
Almost every human culture has some element of "judgment" in it, whether in the next life, or in a returning life as with reincarnation. The idea that the things you do just now have a lasting impact whose consequences are still, in some meaningful sense, yours. In environmental terms, the phrase is "we all live downstream." In a cosmic or spiritual sense, we can't just walk away from our actions.
When people start cracking on Christianity, of whatever denomination, for having "created" guilt, my inner anthropologist says "uh, no." The human condition in folktale, mythology, and legend always tells us that the ratty slippers we throw over the mudbrick wall will come back, that the old man at the crossroads we were so rude to will turn out to be a king, or that a weeping swan can become a glorious princess.
The particular Christian spin on this is called "the Last Trump," the "End of Days," or "Judgment Day." We say, with varying emphases, that our ultimate destiny has something to do with a final appearance before God's presence, "the Great White Throne" next to the crystal sea as Revelation has it.
Jack Chick says it's a movie, but he was a big fan of "This Is Your Life."
Unless you're of the "we're just a meat sack of chemical interactions" persuasion, it's hard to avoid some kind of mental picture like that, whether you're a Bible reader (or Jack Chick tract reader) or not. And the truth is, if I'm judged by any sort of reasonable standard, after one viewing, my story is fit only for the trash, kind of like after watching a DVD of "Ishtar."

And what I've done is
Trust in Jesus
My great Deliverer
My strong Defender
The Son of God
This is why we keep talking about this Jesus fellow. His story, in brief, is to come and stay long enough to make it clear a) he's speaking directly for the Eternal One, b) he will prove it by rising from a shameful, unambiguous death to equally startling, certain new life, and c) he promises to speak for us when we have nothing to say for ourselves.
Thank you, Mac, for reminding me how simple that story is.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him your tale at, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Faith Works 9-17

Faith Works 9-17-11

Jeff Gill


Back to Church Sunday: For You?



Tomorrow, Sept. 18, is "Back to Church Sunday."
You may ask, "Sez who?"
Well, it's fairly unashamedly a promotional campaign by Lifeway Christian Resources, a publishing house and Christian bookstore chain that is a ministry of the Southern Baptist Convention. Their materials are used by a wide variety of evangelical and mainline Protestant churches.
This is obviously a win-win approach, since churches want to invite people to come, and Lifeway knows that if more people come to church, they'll sell more Bibles, books, and other media.
Lifeway is also a ministry, and as their president, Thom Rainer points out that in studies, it appears that only 2% of regularly attending worshipers invite someone to come to their church over a year, and over 80% of unchurched people say they are very to somewhat likely to say "yes" if someone were to invite them.
For those as challenged by math as I am sometimes, Rainer helpfully notes a little further on that this means 98% of committed Christians never invite anyone to church during a year. Ouch.
So whatever your denomination, this is a situation that it's good to have backup for, and the "Back to Church Sunday" effort includes a video you may well have already seen on Facebook.
It includes a delightful list of reasons why people don't go to church, and possible answers, including my favorite pairing: Reason – it's full of hypocrites! Answer from an amiable burly pipefitter – there's always room for one more!
The tagline is simple: Invite someone.
So I'd argue (and suspect Thom Rainer wouldn't dispute) that "Back to Church Sunday" is aimed as much inside the church as it is outside. "Invite someone" is an exhortation not to the unchurched, but to the faithful; to phrase a bit differently, and less diplomatically, "Why in heaven's name aren't you?"
There's the tricky conversation that is far beyond any one Christian resource firm or coaching process. It's tricky, but it's awfully simple. Why aren't people who are members constantly WANTING to invite people to church?
Phrased that way, there are a few obvious possible answers. One is: people I meet wouldn't really like it there. OK, so why do you? Is what you like something no one else likes? Huh.
Or, more dangerously, most people I meet I'm not sure I'd want at my church. Urrrgh. Hopefully it's not that.
The usual suspect is the guilty answer: if I ask, and they don't want to, then it will make it awkward for us at a) work, b) bridge club, c) the bar (huh?), or d) in my neighbor's house. Sort of like in high school, where you want to ask someone out, but until you do, it's not like they've said no, but once you've asked, it can't be taken back.
And that's hard. I truly don't mean to mock. There's worrying about looking like "one of THOSE Christians" at work, for whom the only subject of conversation is why you should go to their church (and there's really not that many of them), and there's the simple fear of rejection, which I think is the larger obstacle for most.
So the simple need, and kudos to Lifeway for helping provide some, is for enough motivation to push within us against that adolescent fear of getting a "no," or even a brush-off, from someone.
This is a morning paper, so let me hope that you might just read this, and have an opportunity before the day is over to invite someone, and bring them back to church for this Sunday, and maybe a bit more.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him your tale at, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.